Thursday 30 May 2024

If not now, then when?


A few days ago, ‘Keith’ Starmer declared that he is, despite all the empirical evidence to the contrary, a socialist. The problem with the s-word is that it means different things to different people, so he helpfully attempted to give us a taste of his own definition, which is something to do with putting the interests of the country ahead of those of the party. At first sight, it’s a pretty silly thing to say. It doesn’t look a lot better at second or third sight either. On reflection, I suppose it merely shifts the definition issue off one word and on to another – what does ‘the country’ mean in this context. If ‘the interests of the country’ is shorthand for a belief that the duty of any government is to ensure the welfare and wellbeing of all its citizens on an equal basis, then perhaps the statement is not quite as silly as it looks. Although quite how that might force him to disregard the views of his party is less than clear.

There are not, however, many signs that this is what he believes at all. Labour have, after all, made it very clear that many thousands of people will be expected to continue to live in poverty under a Labour government, at least until something magical happens. Even if there are at least partial solutions available. Most of the time, Starmer seems to be much closer to the Tory vision of society, in which each individual’s value is related directly to their financial worth. Turning to the real thing, Hunt was at it a few days ago, when he claimed that the Tories are the party of hard work. For other people, of course: because one thing we know is that for the lowest paid in manual work, ‘working harder’ benefits only their employers. Which is probably what Hunt had in mind, even if he didn’t say it directly. Meanwhile, those who choose their parents with more care can go through life carefree without ever discovering what ‘work’ is, let alone the ‘hard’ version of it.

Of course, it isn’t just in the field of manual work where rewards aren’t always as proportional to effort as Tory and Labour alike would have us believe. Whilst there are a very small number of wealthy artists, musicians, writers and performers, most people in those fields barely scrape a living together. On the basis of yesterday’s policy pledge from Sunak, any university courses pursued in such subjects are a rip-off since they don’t improve students’ later earnings, and should therefore be scrapped. It’s not just philistinism (which is not the same thing as saying that philistinism isn’t one of the drivers), it’s another expression of the way in which they see everything in financial terms, as just another transaction. The idea that education and learning – let alone the transferable skills such as carrying out research and then organising and expressing thoughts, all of which can result from structured study regardless of the subject matter – have any value in themselves is one that they find strange. But then a well-educated populace is not likely to turn into an electorate which can be manipulated on the basis of prejudice, bias and hatred.

Defining ‘socialism’ in a few words isn’t an easy task. Ensuring the welfare and wellbeing of all citizens on an equal basis might be a reasonable first stab, even if it leaves unstated the implicit but necessary enabler, which is that the economy should be run for the collective benefit rather than the benefit of a few. It’s not what Starmer is offering, though – indeed, he currently seems more concerned with eliminating from Labour’s ranks any who believe anything remotely similar to that. It might be reasonable to argue that 45 years of Thatcher and her successors have left an electorate unready to hear, let alone vote for, a more collectivist approach, but failing to present one merely reinforces the status quo rather than challenging it. The problem with an argument that ‘now is not the time’ to present an alternative is that there is never likely to be such a time.

Monday 27 May 2024

Lord of Chaos


One of the features of the 2017 election campaign was the way in which Theresa May’s big announcement on social care turned to dust on exposure to daylight and scrutiny. And one of the features of politics more generally is that politicians rarely learn from the mistakes of others, preferring to believe in their own unique ability. That inability to learn about the dangers of announcing policies which haven’t been thought through has given us Sunak’s National Service policy. The policy, which was categorically ruled out by one of Sunak’s ministers only three days before being announced as government policy, has been torn apart for its back-of-the-envelope costings and criticised by former military commanders as unworkable.

Sunak and his advisers seem not to have considered the possibility that ministers being interviews might be asked questions on the policy as opposed to being allowed to spout meaningless slogans, with the result that they have been sent out unbriefed and ended up busking with incoherent and inconsistent answers. Putting those answers together, we now know that the scheme would be compulsory, but with no means of enforcement for those who choose to ignore it. Any ‘punishment’ for those declining to participate is expected to be meted out by employers not giving jobs to young people who can’t demonstrate their participation, and fast-tracking those who have, whether they can do the job or not. Curiously, it was only a matter of a week ago that another of Sunak’s ‘loyal’ troops told businesses to consider people solely on merit and forget all other factors. Neither position seems to be easy to reconcile with the Tories’ traditional position that businesses themselves know what’s best for them and should be allowed to make their own decisions free of political interference.

Still, the good news is that, uniquely amongst all politicians, Sunak has a plan to which he is working. Just as well. Imagine how much chaos he could create – in his own party, never mind for the rest of us – if he didn’t have a plan.

Sunday 26 May 2024

Compelled to volunteer


Traditional wisdom says that oppositions never win elections, it’s just that governments lose them. It’s not one of those laws of politics that I’ve ever found entirely convincing, but it’s one which Sunak seems determined to prove does apply, in his case at least. His latest sure-fire election loser is his half-baked plan for the reintroduction of National Service. It’s a compulsory scheme under which 18 year olds can choose either to spend a year in the armed forces, or to give up one weekend a month for a year to ‘volunteer’ to do community work. Compulsory volunteering is a concept which will, of course, be familiar to many former members of the armed forces (as in “I need three volunteers – you, you and you”), but the ‘compulsory’ part of both elements seems to be optional, since there will apparently be no sanctions for those who decline to participate. Sunak, who ruled out conscription just a few short months ago, claims that National Service isn’t at all the same thing as conscription, and I suppose that if it’s only optionally compulsory he might have a point, if only in terms of linguistic niceties.

What’s harder to fathom out, though, is who exactly he thinks this policy will appeal to. He has probably calculated that since it doesn’t start until 2025 and only applies to 18 years olds then, those most directly affected haven’t got a vote in this election anyway. And he’s already lost the votes of most of those young people who are already 18, so can’t make that much worse. I suppose it might be popular with those who did their National Service back in the day and feel that the country has gone to pot since it was abolished, but since the policy ended in 1960, with the last conscript released in 1963, anyone who actually was conscripted would have to be at least in their late 70s, and most would be over 80. Demographics tells us that that is a comparatively small and diminishing cohort. It’s also one of the few cohorts where a majority reliably vote Tory, meaning that the scope for winning extra votes is necessarily limited. Returning to the possibility that there is some sort of cunning plan here to throw the election, it could just be an attempt to make sure that as many as possible of those MPs who’ve plotted against him go down as well.

There’s no real need to worry too much about anything he promises to do over the next six weeks, given that the probability of him still being around to do it is vanishingly small, but the bit that concerned me most wasn’t the ‘interesting’ use of words like ‘compulsory’ and ‘voluntary’, it was the point made in news reports about the need for cohesiveness. As a Tory spokesperson put it, “Only by nurturing our shared culture and fostering a sense of duty can we preserve our nation and values for decades to come”, as Sunak said, “…to create a shared sense of purpose among our young people and a renewed sense of pride in our country”, and in Cleverly’s words, “The bulk of this is about helping build a cohesive society”. It looks and sounds a lot like a scheme designed to inculcate a sense of Britishness, deference and obedience into a reluctant and ungrateful peasantry. And they’re planning to pay for it by raiding the wholly inadequate fund which was set up to replace EU funding. That scheme has already been used to redirect funds from poorer area to richer ones; this proposal would further rob those poorer areas of the funds they need and were promised in pursuit of an outdated and dangerous form of English/British nationalism which sees any alternative sense of identity as a threat.

Saturday 25 May 2024

Spotting the difference


Here are two pictures of Starmer surrounded by Labour’s ‘Change’ posters in recent days – one from the Guardian taken in England, and one from Sky News taken in Scotland.

Do they think no-one will notice?

Friday 24 May 2024

Climbing on to a sinking ship


Like many idioms and sayings, the old adage about rats and sinking ships has an underlying truth to it. Because rats, in the good old days at least, tended to live in the lowest part of ships, they were often the first to notice an ingress of water and reacted by running upwards. They are, apparently, accomplished swimmers but stand a better chance of surviving in the open sea than in the bilge of a boat en route to the bottom, although whether they have the mental capacity to assess their choices that carefully before running from the encroaching wet stuff is less certain.

Unsurprisingly, the Conservative ship – a sinking vessel if ever there was one – is currently experiencing a rash of sudden departures as well, as the crew eye the direction that their ship is taking under current leadership. Today, they’ve been joined by John Redwood, who entirely coincidentally was once compared to a rat sandwich by Ieuan Wyn Jones, although some have suggested that he’s heading for a different universe rather than a watery grave. He’s long been on a different planet certainly. What is rather less expected is the way in which Sunak’s party is actively welcoming other rats back on board, so that they can go down as members of the crew rather than outcasts and renegades. It’s probably the nearest thing UK politics has to the presidential pardons which some US leaders issue to their mates before leaving office. It’s the sort of thing which only a PM on his political deathbed would consider. He has little reason not to do so, given that the possibility of salvaging anything of his political reputation took to the lifeboat in despair a long time ago.

Thursday 23 May 2024

Analysing the costs and benefits


One of the most misremembered political events of the past was the way in which Harold Wilson called the 1966 election just after England won the World Cup and swept to victory on the back of the feel-good factor which resulted from the win. It’s utter nonsense, of course – the world cup final was on 30th July, 17 weeks after the election on 31st March. Yet many people still remember, albeit not always fondly, the football effect on Labour’s victory. But if we really want to see the potential impact of a football game on an election, we need to look at 1970, when England were knocked out in the quarter finals just four days before the election, and a generally expected Labour win became an unexpected Tory win.

Whether Sunak has calculated the impact of the Euros on his party’s chances is an unanswered question. The group stages finish a week before the election and the first knock-out stage ends just two days before polling day. Historically and statistically, it’s likely that England will make it through the group stage, so he might be making a safe-ish bet up to that point; but the possibility of an England defeat in a knockout round just days before an election looms large. The more hyped the possibility of winning, the bigger the likelihood of failure – another lesson from sporting history. (He will almost certainly not even have considered the progress of Scotland’s team in the same event; the election will, as is always the case, be lost or won in England.) Following the inexplicable urge felt by senior male politicians (I’ve never understood why they feel such an urge, but it does seem to be a very gender-specific infection) to claim to support a football team, Sunak has opted for being a Southampton supporter, although I’m sure that I’m not the only one who’s a little dubious about the claim, and indeed about any claim he makes to be interested in, or to follow, football.

Whether, or to what extent, a football result really affects the outcome of a General Election is a moot point; whilst it’s hard to believe that millions of people are just waiting for the final whistle before deciding how to vote, it’s entirely believable that a general feel-good factor will benefit incumbents – just as a feel-bad factor will benefit the opposition. I did once read a book on politics which described voting as an essentially irrational act: voting according to the outcome of a football game seems to fit the description rather well. Sunak, on the other hand, seems to genuinely believe that the electorate will carefully weigh up the manifestos of the parties and use a spreadsheet to arrive at an assessment of which is the most financially-rewarding for them personally, and then cast their vote accordingly. Even if his belief in his own competence and ability to deliver were justified (and it’s not a belief which stands up to much objective analysis), the assumption that voters would then:

(a) conclude they will be better off under the Tories, and

(b) vote entirely selfishly on the basis of that cost-benefit analysis

underlines his inexperience in practical politics, and the extent of his detachment from the way people ‘feel’ about the way things are going in general. I’ve knocked on tens of thousands of doors in my time, but it only took me a very small proportion of that number to realise that voting behaviour is far more complex – not to say inexplicable, or even inscrutable – than that.

Still, it gets him off several rather vicious-looking hooks which have been dangling in front of him. He’ll no longer have to find ways of sending someone, anyone, to Rwanda against their will, just as one example. He'll delight the tobacco lobby by dropping his bill to ban smoking for anyone currently under 15. He can stop justifying the increase in NHS waiting lists, the levels of immigration, and the cost of living pressures on families - those all become someone else's problem. And on the fifth of July, he’ll be free to announce that he’s standing down and going off to California to polish his family fortune without waiting to be pushed out. In any spreadsheet setting out the costs and benefits to Rishi Sunak personally of calling an election now, the result looks a lot more favourable than many have been assuming. It just doesn’t include anything remotely political.

Monday 20 May 2024

Summoning the genie


Statistics and numbers are important, of course, as a means of measuring and assessing things. They also serve a useful function as evidence in political debate, although they seem to be misused more often than not. But one thing we should never do is lose sight of the fact that behind those numbers there are usually real people facing real issues: they aren’t just numbers in a spreadsheet. It’s a point which the Labour Party seem to be missing when it comes to the two-child cap on benefits.

There are arguments for and against setting the level of benefits according to the size of a household. Those against doing so argue that wages and salaries don’t very according to need so benefits shouldn’t do so either; others point out that wages and salaries, unlike benefits, aren’t deliberately set at a level which is supposed to provide an absolute minimum income based on an assessment of need. Whichever side of that debate one supports, arbitrarily setting a limit at two children meets neither of the criteria. It is simply an arbitrary decision based on saving money, and disregarding the consequences for the individuals affected. What is unarguable is that a minimal household income, allegedly set on the basis of need but deliberately excluding part of that need from the assessment, will result in more children living in poverty than would be the case if all children were taken into account.

It's a debate into which the Archbishop of Canterbury waded last week, earning himself the support – in principle – of Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary. Support in principle seems unlikely to turn into concrete action in the short term, however, even if Labour, as universally expected outside the Downing Street bunker, win the Westminster election later this year. Like so many of Labour’s ‘aspirations’, it will have to wait until the magic growth genie emerges from the lantern and enables the government to do something about the situation without breaking its own, entirely arbitrary, fiscal rules. Labour will, Streeting tells us, have a “serious cross-government strategy” for addressing child poverty, but they can’t tell us what it is yet because they haven’t developed it, and in any event they can’t implement it until the genie has done his work. It means, in essence, further delay, and despite Streeting’s fine words about child poverty having “an impact on their long-term health, wellbeing and educational outcomes”, they are deliberately planning for more children to suffer those consequences for fear that the Tory press will portray them as spendthrift. That will continue for an unspecified and indeterminate period after their election – and if the genie doesn’t show up, then potentially for ever. It makes his support for the archbishop’s words look more than a little mealy-mouthed.

They are placing total reliance on that genie without having the slightest idea of how to summon him out of the lantern, even if he’s in there in the first place. All they can do is rub and polish, rub and polish. But they have to find the lantern first, and it’s not at all certain that they have any more clue than Sunak about where to look.

Friday 17 May 2024

Pirate Laura


For decades, at least, the Tory Party has liked to be known as the party of Laura Norder. It used to express itself as a demand for the restoration of hanging and flogging, but has more recently manifested as a desire to criminalise more people for doing more things and increasing the punishments for said crimes and misdemeanours, all whilst cutting the costs of law enforcement including both policing and the courts. Sending more people to prison without a commensurate increase in the number of prison places is just one of many logical incoherences in the approach. Releasing people early and delaying sending them to prison in the first place are two of the inevitable results of the government’s failure to understand the consequences of that basic arithmetic by which the PM claims to set such great store.

One of the aspects of their love for Laura which was less obvious in years gone by but has become increasingly obvious under the last three Prime Ministers is that Laura is for other people, not for them. That is to say, breaches of ‘the law’ are to be severely punished if committed by someone else, but ignored or covered up when committed by Conservative politicians. It’s not just the comparatively minor things like ignoring their own regulations on partying during a pandemic, or failing to abide by the laws of the road, it’s also about taking a cavalier approach to the UK’s international obligations and treaties, and being willing to defy courts whose jurisdiction they have formally signed up to. Breaking the law in a “specific and limited way” is still breaking the law.

Sunak was at it again this week, declaring that he will ignore any court ruling which he doesn’t like. He claims to be doing so on grounds of ‘national security’, but he seems to be demanding the unilateral right to make unchallenged decisions as to what national security is and which court decisions might threaten it. It’s hard to find objective grounds for arguing that proper processing of asylum claims from desperate people, in accordance with international rules and treaties, is a threat to national security, but then a feeling of entitlement doesn’t require objective evidence. Indeed, ‘evidence’ is positively undesirable. From the perspective of someone who believes that being cruel to the desperate and vulnerable is what will make people vote for him it might be easy to confuse national security with security of tenure in Downing Street.

It's not an argument that they would accept from anyone else. “I ignored the law on shoplifting in order to prioritise the security of my family” is not a get-out clause that can be found in any law on theft, and would be given short shrift by any judge. But then Tory Laura isn’t the blind-folded figure as which Lady Justice is often portrayed, judging people equally regardless of their position in society. Tory Laura’s job is to keep people in their place, to maintain the imbalance between rich and poor, and above all to prop up the existing order and government. Tory Laura sports a pirate’s eye patch instead, ensuring that she sees only what they want her to see.

Thursday 16 May 2024

Searching for the Big Idea


It’s barely a month since Starmer told us that his absolute top priority was more spending on defence and weaponry. I noted at the time that his ‘top priority’ seemed to change regularly, and today he’s launched his six key messages for the election. It’s not really surprising to note that defence isn’t one of them. It’s one of those ‘top priorities’ which somehow didn’t make the cut.

The six pledges themselves are a pretty uninspiring collection at best. Two of them – relating to health and education – are England-only pledges, two – on economic stability and anti-social behaviour – are things which any and every party could claim as their objectives and tell us little about the ‘how’, and the remaining two – on setting up new bodies for energy and border security are so lacking in any detail which distinguishes them from the present government’s policies as to be meaningless. Describing the whole package as ‘first steps’ sounds an awful lot like an admission that even his previous unambitious statements are now considered over-ambitious.

Perhaps the most revealing statement of all came from Pat McFadden on the morning media round, who said that, “The only way you’re going to win the next election is by appealing to people who haven’t traditionally voted for you and who have voted Conservative … That is what the difference between losing and winning is, and there’s nothing to be ashamed of in that”.  With one caveat, I’d even agree with him. It’s no small caveat, though: it is that winning power is more important than having any plan for what to do with it, or any desire to change anything other than whose hands are on the levers of power. ‘Being in government’ has become, in effect, Labour’s only rationale and purpose.

There is, of course, a strong argument for replacing an imploding and incompetent rabble with a united team who can be effective, although I’ll admit to being amongst those who aren’t entirely convinced that delivering austerity competently is necessarily better than delivering it incompetently. Being incompetent in delivering the wrong thing isn’t always a bad thing. They want Tories to vote for them in the belief that they’ll be better and more effective Tories than Sunak’s mob.

In fairness, that last point about relative competence isn’t exactly a controversial proposition. It is, though, a colossal admission of failure by Labour. Not only have they failed to convince people that there is a better alternative, they have given up even trying; and no longer believe it themselves. They are, instead, reduced to peddling the idea that the best future available for us boils down to choosing the gang which will be the least incompetent at implementing policy. As Big Ideas go, it’s more than a little lacking.

Tuesday 14 May 2024

Imperial fantasy is a weakness, not a strength


The Institute of Economic Affairs isn’t exactly famous for being a politically-neutral organisation. It has an agenda which it vigorously promotes, based around the idea that ‘free’ markets are the answer to just about everything. Having an agenda isn’t a good enough reason to reject everything they say, but it’s a pretty good reason for reading what they say with a sceptical eye. They recently produced some research on the economics of the Empire, and it makes for interesting reading. It claims, on my reading of it, that the wealth of the UK is not to any significant degree based on its imperial past nor on the slavery which was a part of that past, but would, in general terms, have accumulated anyway, based largely on innovation and enterprise. It’s a thesis which is not universally accepted, to put it mildly. Other interpretations and analyses are available.

It's a conclusion which some on the ‘right’ of the Tory Party, such as Kemi Badenoch, have seized on, though, to validate their own interpretation of the pros and cons of Britain’s imperial past. But even if, as she wishes, we were to accept the contentious conclusion that the UK benefited only slightly if at all, even the report itself notes that that doesn’t mean that it was a good thing from the point of view of the colonised. As the author puts it, “The implication is that colonialism and slavery were not zero-sum games that benefited the colonisers at the expense of the colonised. It was more like a negative-sum game, which hurt the latter without really benefiting the former”. A shortish blog isn’t the place to develop a detailed analysis of the economic arguments; I’m more interested in the political implications for the way we remember our own history and what it means for identity. As the author himself says, “The reader will have noticed that we have avoided promoting any specific narrative about Britain’s (or any other country’s) history or expressing a view of how that history should be collectively remembered today. A cost–benefit analysis cannot tell us any of that and is not supposed to”. That hasn’t prevented Badenoch from trying to use the report to do precisely that.

For those who want to cling to the traditional British view of history, it is important to their political and historical identity that the Empire should be remembered for the ‘good things’ which it did, rather than the bad ones. For sure, the argument goes, the Empire might have destroyed communities, stolen resources, wiped out languages and cultures, and enslaved populations, but look, we gave them Christianity, democracy and the rule of law, the English language and Shakespeare. And cricket. Those who claim that taking an alternative view involves ‘rewriting history’ are themselves rewriting history because, even if it were to be accepted that those things were indeed advantages, they were never the motivation for the initial colonisation. It’s very much a post hoc rationalisation of a mindset which was based on a desire for conquest and exploitation. Even if the IEA were to be proved right about imperialism not being very cost-effective, that would merely show that the imperialists failed to achieve their aims, not that they were somehow acting charitably.

It's also a very arrogant and ethnocentric view of the world. It assumes that the colonised could not and would not have developed their own systems of law and democracy without having them imposed by the colonisers, and it assumes that the culture, values and beliefs of the colonisers were and are superior to those of the colonised. However, presenting imperialism as having been, on the whole, a good thing is absolutely key to the identity and belief systems of Anglo-British nationalists, and they feel threatened by any alternative view. Their increasingly desperate lashing out at alternative views is a sign of weakness, not strength.

Monday 13 May 2024

Who's shafting who?


It would be a very strange political party indeed which managed to somehow contain a Jeremy Corbyn or a Diane Abbott as well as a Natalie Elphicke. Choosing who to keep and who to reject sounds like a job opportunity for another ex-Labour MP. Kilroy-Silk was himself something of an expert in party-hopping as he switched from Labour to UKIP to Veritas, but it’s not his political volatility which comes to mind so much as his short-lived TV game show, Shafted, in which he asked players whether they wished to ‘share’ or to ‘shaft’. That’s the sort of ‘difficult choice’ which ‘Keith’ Starmer insists he needs to make, although choosing to poach one of the allegedly most right-wing members of the House of Commons whilst ditching two of the allegedly most left-wing members doesn’t seem to have caused him to lose a great deal of sleep. When it comes to traditional Labour values and members, ‘shafting’ seems to be Starmer’s default setting.

Perhaps the bigger question, given the weekend’s revelations about Elphicke’s alleged attempts to get her ex-husband a more comfortable pillow in his prison cell, quite apart from such minor matters as lobbying the then Lord Chancellor to get him a different court and a more lenient judge, is who exactly is shafting who? Keith’s initial delight at attracting yet another defector has lost some of its shine given the barely concealed delight of the Tories at having off-loaded her. But their own joy in embarrassing Starmer by revealing that she made serious efforts to abuse her position in order to pervert the course of justice has in turn been dulled somewhat as some unkind souls, such as the Secret Barrister, have pointed out that it means that said Lord Chancellor was a direct witness to an outrageous attempt at corrupting the legal processes and chose to do nothing about it at the time because she was on the same side as him. It’s hard to work out which of the players has lost the most credibility. Self-shafting wasn’t an option in the game show, but seems to be a genuine one in real life. Perhaps the show might have gone on a bit longer if it had reflected that reality. Or perhaps not – it didn’t earn the title ‘the worst British television show of the 2000s’ for nothing.

The revelations about the attempted lobbying of judges and ministers suggest that part of Elphicke’s problem was her own bluntness and naiveté. Whilst Buckland appears to have correctly rejected the approaches at the time (even if he didn’t report the attempt at criminality) the idea that the whole system is completely incorruptible is for the birds. Covering up the attempted interference for four years underlines that. It’s more that it doesn’t work in the simplistic way that she assumed it would when she arranged to meet the Lord Chancellor. The Establishment usually does protect its own, but things work more subtly than that. Informal encounters, casual conversations, use of third, fourth and fifth party intermediaries are more normal, but above all, those who are part of the system ‘know’ what is expected of them without anyone needing to tell them. Trying to corrupt the system through a formal meeting was doomed to failure from the outset; the club doesn’t work that way. Then again, perhaps the Elphickes were never really part of the club anyway – if they had been, they would have known that.

Tuesday 7 May 2024

With one bound...


Dick Barton – Special Agent’ was a hit radio series which ran from 1946 until early 1951, which means that the final episode was broadcast before I was even born. That’s one of the very few things that I have in common with Boris Johnson. My knowledge of the catchphrase which grew up around it is not, therefore, based on any direct memory, merely the way in which an older generation used it from time to time. Whatever difficult situation the hero was in at the end of one episode, he managed to suddenly escape at the beginning of the next – hence, “with one bound, he was free”. I don’t know whether Johnson is familiar with the catchphrase, but it sounds like the approach to difficult situations on which he has always been able to rely.

There was a story in the Sunday Times this week (£paywall, but summarised here in the Guardian) about ‘allies’ of Johnson (i.e. people who he hasn’t yet betrayed, and who labour under the delusion that he won’t do so in future either) having been engaged in discussions with Farage to mount a cunning plan, under which Johnson would woo Farage to rejoin the Tories and mount a reverse take-over of the party. There are more than a few minor obstacles to overcome first:

1.    Farage has to stand for election – and win a seat

2.    Johnson has to persuade one of the few remaining Tory MPs after the election, in a very safe seat, to give up a £90,000 a year job and disappear into obscurity so that he can stand instead

3.    The central Tory Party have to accept a disgraced former PM and serial liar as a suitable person to represent the party, and the local association have to select him as their candidate for the by-election, despite everyone knowing that he will inevitably bring the party into further disrepute and that he is standing with the express intention of undermining and usurping whoever happens to be the leader at the time

4.    The electorate have to elect said disgraced former PM and compulsive liar as their MP

5.    Once he gets into the House of Commons, he has to somehow persuade a Labour-dominated chamber to set aside his 90-day suspension for misleading parliament, the implementation of which he avoided by resigning before he could be sacked. If he fails, he will presumably be immediately suspended from parliament giving the electors a chance to demand a recall by-election. In that case, steps 3 and 4 above need to be repeated.

6.    He then needs to persuade Farage to swap parties and join the Tories, despite Farage’s visceral opposition to many of Johnson’s policies on issues such as net zero

It’s quite a list. Even the scriptwriters for Dick Barton might have at least cavilled at the scale of the single bound which was necessary to extricate the hero from that predicament. The real killer for the cunning plan, though, comes after all of that, because one of the two men would then need to agree to play second fiddle to the other. And that is beyond the limits of anything which might be remotely credible. Yet it seems that there really are people in the Tory Party who seriously believe that this is their party’s way forward after the forthcoming trouncing. Dick Barton was, of course, the product of fantasy. It’s a fact which seems strangely relevant here.

Monday 6 May 2024

Straws, not life rafts


There was some mystery a few days ago as to whether and where the PM voted in Thursday’s elections. Given that he splits his time between his constituency and London, he is legally entitled to register to vote in both places (although given his party’s dogged pursuit of Angela Rayner for possibly registering in the wrong one of her two addresses many years ago, it’s reasonable to suppose that they’re not over-keen on admitting to that fact).  And he’s even entitled to vote in both places, as long as it’s not a parliamentary election, although he probably wouldn’t be exactly enthusiastic about owning up to doing that either.

Given the choice of admitting that he voted for the London mayoral candidate, who’s known mostly for her tweets praising Enoch Powell and displaying a not-exactly-subtle thread of anti-Islamic feeling, or admitting that he voted for the North Yorkshire candidate, who was a News Editor at the Daily Star when it compared his immediate predecessor to a lettuce, I can understand his wish to avoid telling us that he voted for either, let alone both. Even Sunak can work out that there’s no right answer to the question, ‘Which did you vote for – the alleged racist or the lettuce-lover?’. To the extent that one can trust the veracity of anything broadcast by GB News (spoiler: not a lot), it has subsequently claimed that he voted by post for the lettuce-lover. It was obviously one of those ‘tough decisions’ that politicians are always telling us need to be made.

No party is immune to the possibility of putting forward ‘eccentric’ candidates at election time, and vetting candidates is a particularly difficult issue at local government level where the number of candidates involved is so high. Mayoral candidates are, however, much fewer in number – there were only 11 up for election on Thursday – and they are much higher in profile. Selecting two out of 11 for which the party leader might be embarrassed to admit having voted is quite an achievement, even for a party in terminal decline.

But we can’t simply ignore the local election candidates just because vetting them is so difficult. Apparently, one of the bright spots for the Tories last week, according to them, was retaining control of Harlow council by the narrowest margin of a single seat. It was achieved, though, by including a councillor under investigation for anti-Islamic remarks. His exact status is currently unclear, but it appears that he was suspended whilst being investigated and somehow unsuspended in order to stand as a Tory candidate even though the investigation had not concluded. Whether he will even be eligible for membership of his party’s group on the council is as clear as mud. Depending on an individual in that position to portray the result as a ‘bright spot’ has a certain whiff of desperation about it.

Their biggest bright spot of the night was, of course, retaining the mayoralty in Teesside. They also came surprisingly close to doing the same in the West Midlands. The common factor between both of those results was that the Tory candidates did everything they could to distance themselves from their party and its leader, preferring not to mention either unless they really had no choice. As a result, some of the less dim Tory MPs may well conclude that their best chance of being re-elected is to pretend they’re not Tories, so it’s a tactic we will probably see repeated later this year at the Westminster elections. It might, though, turn out to be an extrapolation too far. More of a straw at which to clutch than a life raft.

Saturday 4 May 2024

New complex systems of maths


There are different approaches to the subject of mathematics, and it is possible to posit a number of wholly consistent alternative systems which produce some results which everyday life might consider to be more than a little strange. Back in my sixth form days, I was somewhat taken by the hyperbolic form of non-Euclidean geometry, in which the sum of the angles in a triangle varies according to the size of the triangle – with the extremes ranging from zero for an infinitely large triangle to 180 degrees for an infinitely small one. It’s of limited practical use in daily life (where we are, in cosmological terms, close to being infinitely small), but none the less fascinating for that.

It’s not uncommon for me to be more than a little harsh on the extent to which Sunak and his not-so-merry men are mathematically challenged, as a result of watching them struggle with some very basic arithmetic. Perhaps I’m being unfair; perhaps they’ve just developed a hitherto unknown version of mathematics, in which things which make little sense to most of us are actually part of an internally consistent system of logic which the rest of us are just too stupid to comprehend. This was reinforced today by the sight of some Tory spokesmen apparently trying to tell the world that yesterday’s round of elections was, in fact, a huge success for the party. The fringe elements have gone further: the falling number of votes ‘proves’ that the public at large has an appetite for even more extreme policies. It’s a strange equation they’ve developed in which people who refuse to vote for increasingly extreme policies can somehow be brought back into the fold by adopting even more extreme policies. Absolute success is thus equivalent to an absolute lack of votes; only when no-one at all votes for them will they feel fully vindicated. They might even have once possessed a mathematical proof of their theorem, which they’ve emulated Fermat by losing after scribbling something in the margin.

It's an interesting conjecture although, like non-Euclidean geometry, it’s of rather limited practical use to anyone else. On the other hand, my old favourite, Occam, might suggest that the simpler solution might be a more appropriate conclusion to draw. They really are just not very good at maths.

Thursday 2 May 2024

Compasses aren't easy to come by these days


The last Prime Minister but one seemed to believe that rules were for everyone else, but that someone who would be world king should feel no obligation to abide by them. That sense of entitlement was coupled with a sense of utter shamelessness; no matter how egregious his behaviour, he simply ignored all criticism and carried on regardless. For most of his life, it's an approach which worked. Being ashamed of nothing and willing to ignore all criticism meant that most problems eventually ceased to be newsworthy, even if people kept muttering darkly about them from the sidelines.

Whilst Wales’ new First Minister isn’t in the same league as Boris Johnson, his approach to the large donations received from a convicted environmental criminal seems to be modelled on that used by Johnson – ignore it and hope it will go away. Sooner or later, he assumes that his critics will simply give up – they don’t have the votes in the Senedd to force him to do anything, as long as his own side continue to vote the right way, despite the obvious misgivings harboured by some of them. The opposition parties will presumably continue to make their repeated demands for an investigation, although it's far from clear what the point would be: what would actually be investigated? The First Minister himself has repeated, what is beginning to seem like endlessly, the mantra that ‘no rules were broken’ and nobody seems to have any clear contrary evidence of any breach of any rules, whether rules laid down by the law, the rules of the Senedd, or the rules of the Labour Party.

The complaint, however, isn’t that he behaved in a way contrary to any rules, but that his behaviour was unethical and inappropriate, something which anyone capable of feeling shame might see as being far worse. It is, though, something which is much harder to ‘investigate’. Whilst the feeling that it was indeed both of those things might be near universal outside his own immediate circle, whether behaviour is considered ethical or not is ultimately a subjective issue rather than an objective one. For those – a group which presumably includes the First Minister – who believe that ethical behaviour is simplistically defined as doing no more than avoiding any breach of rules, his behaviour cannot be considered to be other than entirely ethical. For those who expect that people who would lead or govern us should be expected to possess a moral compass of their own (and know how to use it), abiding by ‘the rules’ is never going to be good enough.

Given the ethnic background of both the First Minister and the current Prime Minister, the old adage about the colour of pots and kettles seems singularly inappropriate, but in an outbreak of what one might instead call ‘Comparative Hypocritical Immorality and Pomposity Syndrome’, the PM who happily accepted either £10 million or £15 million (his oft-demonstrated inability in basic arithmetic prevents him from knowing which, but he’s well and truly had his CHIPS either way) from a racist and misogynist has demanded an investigation into a FM whose willingness to accept tainted money from a criminal has so far been limited to a ‘mere’ £200,000 (although that limit hasn’t, so far as we know, as yet been tested by any higher offer). Is Brexit to blame for the current shortage of moral compasses, or is there some deeper problem at work?